Even Google understands that the Nutcracker is essential to Christmas, wreathing its logo around with baubles and dancing mice to celebrate the fact that the Tchaikovsky ballet was premiered 120 years ago, on 18 December 1892. Hundreds of productions are currently on stage around the globe, and tomorrow the Guardian is streaming a classic Royal Balletproduction and making the video available for free for seven days.
Back in St Petersburg in 1892, it never looked destined to become the world’s most popular ballet. Critics grumbled that the storyline (distilled from the ETA Hoffmann story) was inconsistent and dull; that Tchaikovsky’s score was disproportionately sumptuous, even that too much money had been spent on the staging. By 1927, Nutcracker had slipped so far from official favour that the radical choreographer Fedor Lophukov felt free to reinvent it in the style of a satirical revue. Then it was discovered by the West, and companies discovered that they had a family-friendly, festive ballet that could be turned into box office gold every year at Christmas.
Despite the many, many different productions that have been staged over its life, the problems of the story remain pretty much unsolved. All the story is concentrated into act one, as the magician Drosselmeyer attempts to use the heroine, Clara, to free his nephew from the curse that’s transformed him into a hideous nutcracker. Yet most of the dancing is in act two, where Clara and the rescued Nutcracker Prince/Nephew have been whisked away to the Kingdom of Sweets to be rewarded by a feast of exotic divertissements. (There’s a full synopsis of the action here.)
Yet even when the plot disappoints, Tchaikovsky’s score never does – soundpainting the action and the emotional undertow with brilliance and colour. A clever choreographer like Peter Wright, who has worked on perfecting this Royal Ballet production for nearly 30 years, can fill the stage with compensating activity.
The YouTube footage is of a 2001 film of the Wright production: the Guardian’s online screening tomorrow will be of the same production, but with a cast from 2009. The first 30 minutes show Wright animating the Stahlbaum family party with as many conjuring trick and party games as he can – and it’s clever of him to have made Clara a teenager rather than a small child. Performed here by Alina Cojocaru, we get dancing of a range and complexity that helps to break up the more simple family set pieces.
While companies with less lavish backup can find it a problem to make the first act look resplendent enough, Wright has the sumptuous resources of the Opera House wardrobe and design departments.Matthew Bourne made a clever virtue of necessity in his own 1992 version by wittily staging his act one party in a Dickensian orphanage with just a few drooping paper chains and a bare branch for a Christmas tree.
Choreographer Mark Morris in his own radical re-envisioning of the ballet, The Hard Nut (1991), updated the story to the late 1970s and the dark comic world of graphic novelist Charles Burns. Bad disco dancing, afro wigs and drunken disgracefulness makes this Christmas party from suburban hell.
Returning to Wright’s production, it’s around 32 minutes into the Tchaikovsky score that the undercurrent of magic breaks through, as eerie silvery colours and dark chords indicate how high the stakes are for Drosselmeyer as he tries to set his own spells against the curse on his nephew. At 36 minutes, against the rising majesty of the music, the Christmas tree begins to grow – and the ballet is suspended on a note of sheer wonder. If a production gets this transformation scene right, the audience should be sold, and more than happy to follow Clara in her dream battle with the Nutcracker against the army of wicked mice.
Wright ramps up the emotion in his production, too, by having Clara start to fall in love with the Nutcracker as he’s released from his spell – and act one benefits from having a blithe, airy pas de deux prefiguring a possible grown up romance: here Cojocaru is partnered by a very young and ardent-looking Ivan Putrov. Moving into the Kingdom of the Sweets at about 60.00 in the clip at the top of this page, the 2001 version has Miyako Yoshida and Jonathan Cope dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Yoshida, who also features in the 2009 cast, is one of my favourite ballerinas for this role, having the necessary mix of diminutive, music-box precision and serene grandeur.
The divertissements that take up most of act two are the weakest theatrical element of the ballet. Revisionists like Bourne and Morris have tried to liven them up with deviant comedy: Morris casting the Arabian dance with a trio of oil sheiks, Bourne setting his version of the Waltz of the Flowers on a giant candy-studded cake.
But it’s almost impossible to inject any narrative drive into traditional versions of this section of the ballet, and for me it springs to life only with the grand pas (1.26.40 in the Royal Ballet clip). The music is sublime, suggesting an undertow of yearning and loss that gives depths to the emotions in the story, and evokes the nostalgia that’s properly a part of Christmas – for childhood innocence, perhaps also for the capacity for wonder.
The choreography starts off as little more than a slow evolution of balances, but the two dancers find the richness in the music and, as it gears up to its climax at around 1.30.00, they make an immaculate transition into the fiendishly difficult manoeuvre where Yoshida is lifted high on Cope’s shoulder and spirals down his body into a low dive. The contrast in their heights works wonderfully here, as it does in their solo variations, Cope’s creamy jumps set against her tinkling, precision perfect gargouillades around 1.35.00 (a step various described as gargling with the feet or, more prosaically, as shaking off your knickers).
From this it’s a hop and skip back to the Stahlbaum home, and Clara awakening from her dream. But I like Wright’s attempt to sustain the story right through to the end with that last curious, hopeful look between Clara and the nephew; a love story to develop, and the magic made real.